I’ve been a Star Trek fan for close to 25 years now. For most of that time, one could easily divide the history of the franchise into two eras: the “classic” era encompassing The Original Series, and the “modern” era encompassing The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Thanks to the drought of new shows after the cancellation of Enterprise, fans have basically lived in the “modern” era of Star Trek ever since. Even the Kelvin timeline movies felt more of an offshoot or diversion than a whole new era.
With the premiere of Discovery, with its new (to Star Trek) season-long serial format, the franchise has clearly entered a new era. As with any period of change, there are always fans who prefer the old to the new. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But just as Discovery has demonstrated the benefits and drawbacks of late-2010s storytelling, there’s another show that’s gotten a lot of attention from fans: Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.
Warming Up to The Orville
I was very, very skeptical when I first heard about The Orville. I’ve never liked of any of Seth MacFarlane’s shows; I always figured I just didn’t like his style of humor. So, although I knew that he was a fan (thanks to his walk-on appearance on Enterprise), I really didn’t expect to enjoy his Star Trek parody.
But I wanted to give it a shot. The pilot episode may have been a bit clunky and formulaic, but it was clear that the humor for the series derived from the characters and the sci-fi format, not from forcing a formula comedy into a sci-fi setting. The overly extended exposition dump at the research facility was the high point of the show for me, because it both moved the story along while clearly poking fun at Star Trek’s tendencies to do walk-and-talk scenes and to have characters dramatically say “you’d better see this” rather than just explaining the situation.
Each episode after that got progressively better, and by the fourth episode, I was hooked. But I was also pleasantly surprised at how the show developed: although very clearly a parody, very few of the characters were outright caricatures of their Star Trek counterparts, but fully-realized people in comedic situations. Furthermore, many of the stories clearly had messages and ideals to convey. The Orville started to feel less like a parody and more like a comic, affectionate tribute to Star Trek.
I came to like many of the characters, too. Of course, every show lives or dies by its lead character, and Seth MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer is a hilarious, more-casual take on the traditional, heroic starship captain. He’s clearly competent but not too formal, and it’s his interactions with the rest of the crew that make the show work.
I didn’t like the prominence of Mercer’s relationship with Commander Grayson at first. After the first two episodes, I was afraid that the awkward romantic comedy angle would be more prevalent than it turned out to be for most of the rest of the season. And Grayson turned out to be an effective, well-realized character on her own. Thankfully, when the relationship was revisited in the last episode of the season, it was approached in a tasteful and realistic fashion.
The rest of the cast was excellent, too. Some characters were developed more than others (Alara Kitan stands out the most), but all of them deftly combined both sci-fi clichés and reasonably realistic personalities.
Practically every episode had great jokes that derived from the affectionate tributes to Star Trek (and other sci-fi). While Star Trek’s humor was almost always restrained, The Orville was clearly willing to push the envelope, like when Malloy taught Isaac about practical jokes, only for Isaac to amputate Gordon’s leg... and then have that leg come crashing down from the ceiling at a very awkward moment. Or trading advanced aliens old Earth reality TV show recordings for the crew’s freedom. Or LaMarr outright proclaiming himself “a space man” to an uncontacted culture. Or Bortus and Klyden’s hilariously familiar domestic squabbles. The list goes on.
That’s not to say that The Orville felt perfect to me. Because it so effectively recreated the feel of The Next Generation and Voyager, it felt at times like the show was revisiting old weaknesses of past Star Trek series. Most notable, to me, was how the main cast, as leaders of their departments like most Trek crews, did pretty much all the work themselves. Since the main characters seemed to do everything, there was little opportunity to meet prominent secondary characters. One big reason why shows like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones have been so popular is their huge supporting cast, allowing a more engaging and realistic set of relationships to develop in the story.
Essentially, by so effectively and affectionately recreating the tone and style of past Star Trek series (right down to reviving the technique of motion-control photography), The Orville feels like a throwback, a deliberately retro show. Is that bad? Of course not... I love it! But just as there are many great things that made 90s-era Star Trek great, there are many things in 2010s-era TV that are better.
Contrast, Not Competition
Aside from its excellent stories, characters, and humor, I think a big part of what has made The Orville so popular is that it feels so familiar. Some vocal fans were unhappy with Discovery. So what made The Orville so enjoyable for the fans that were disappointed by Discovery?
The biggest difference is the prevalence of optimism and pacifism in the setting. While Discovery chose to explore idealism versus pragmatism (to oversimplify it), The Orville essentially accepted idealism as the only option, like The Next Generation. I think a lot of people mistook Discovery’s setting of a war with the Klingons for a rejection of pacifism. Yet if you look at the whole show, there’s plenty of optimism and a heartfelt endorsement of idealistic, but not naive, pacifism.
Does The Orville feel retro because it’s so idealistic? Or because of the episodic plots? Or both?
I’m glad Discovery didn’t go retro, because it would be easy to criticize the show if it followed the same formula as series of the past. Discovery is pushing the boundaries of Star Trek and telling a new kind of story in the same universe. But I’m also glad to have The Orville, because it lets me both enjoy and make fun of those stories I loved.